Isn't it time to concentrate a bit more on light and lighting than on cameras? Aren't nearly all cameras good enough by now?

It's funny to me, thinking back to 1980 when I was a teaching assistant for Reagan Bradshaw and Charlie Guerrero's commercial photography classes at the University of Texas at Austin, that no one at all talked about camera brands; all we really talked about was lighting. How to light. What to light with. How to modify light. Why to make the light on our subjects look a certain way. We mostly defined our styles by our approaches to light and lighting. Now we seem to have collectively abandoned our pursuit/understanding/appreciation of light and lighting and lean mostly on trying to capture whatever circumstances have provided us. It's kind of lazy and kind of stupid, if you are trying to earn a living as a photographer (or videographer) and you want to differentiate yourself from the vast hordes of people who are also trying to become photographers.

This is just one small post and I can't teach much about lighting here; other than trying to get across that I think understanding how to manage or create lighting is vastly more important than whether the camera you choose has 12.8 or 12.9 stops of dynamic range. But I can ridicule you for continually spending mega-dollars on soon-to-be-obsolete cameras when the purchase and mastery of a handful of lighting instruments (which, really, are never obsolete) can make you a much, much better image maker.

Once in a while you might be able to wait around for the light to get neat and you'll trigger the shutter just as golden hour becomes platinum hour and the light gets so neat that you think you are going to wet yourself, but if you do this (commercial photography) for money the real trick goes beyond recognizing that "once in a lifetime natural lighting" and heading over into the productive camp of people who can make lighting absolutely fabulous on command. 

My first recommendation would be to read up and understand the logical underpinnings of controlling light. Buy your own copy of "Light, Science and Magic" and get reading. Don't depend on watching endless YouTube videos about how hacks light and they try emulating them; most of the stuff on YouTube about lighting is worthless dreck. Thirty minute of mindless chit chat for about thirty seconds of barely usable lighting tips. Just read the book and start experimenting with real lights by putting into practice what you've learned from the book. 

My second recommendation is that you buy a continuous light (a cheap tungsten work light at Home Depot is fine) and then experiment using it at every conceivable angle in relation to your main subject. See what happens when you move lights up, down, to the side, etc. Then experiment with modifiers. Start with small umbrellas and then get bigger and bigger and bigger. Umbrellas are cheaper than workshops. Buy umbrellas from 32 inches in diameter all the way up to 72 inches in diameter. Put the light into them so the beam fills the entire umbrella and then marvel at how different a small umbrella, used at six feet from a human subject, looks when compared to a 48 inch, 60 inch and 72 inch umbrella. Then see how each umbrella's look changes as you move it closer and further from the subject. 

Lighting is a life long learning exercise and I'm not about to tell you everything I've learned over the last 40 years here on the blog. But if you don't pick up a light or two or three or four and get started you'll never master a look that you love and that you can create almost anywhere. The beauty of lighting instruments is that the basics don't change based on the price you paid for a light, nor on how ancient the light fixture might be. Doesn't matter if it's Chinese or Swedish. Once the photons leave the light source they don't remember where they came from. 

The web is heating up now with discussions about what might be in the new Nikon. There are dozens of videos by self-proclaimed experts who are comparing $3300 cameras to other $3300 cameras. There are a million sites trying to suss out the minor differences between lenses. But the reality is that none of this is meaningful if the lighting you shoot in is ugly and plodding and....boring. 

I may change systems more frequently than you change your Depends(tm) but what doesn't change is my appreciation for lights and lighting. I buy cheap lights and I've owned expensive lights; coming out of a good umbrella they are all perfectly usable. The real things to invest in are knowledge and experience in making the light your bitch. No one gives a shit about your A7Riii or your D850 if you light like moron. No Otus lens will save you if you can't create a great look with a good fixture and well chosen modifiers. It's all excuses and credit card abuse unless you follow through and master the light. And nearly all of the professional digital cameras made since 2008 are more than adequate.....as long as the light is good.

I once met a guy who could light with a bed sheet and a 100 watt lightbulb screwed into a twelve dollar work light fixture. He could shoot with a Canon Rebel and a kit lens and his images would absolutely mesmerize and gob smack legions of hacks who were shooting in poorly made light with the world's best cameras. Don't be part of the legion of hacks when a little bit of brain work and some evenings experimenting can get you closer to the amazing guy spectrum. 

Decent cameras and great lighting beat the crap out of perfect cameras and shitty or indifferent lighting. Every time. 

You can't wear most photographic lighting equipment to a gallery opening or studio party (as you can a new Leica or Sony) but it lasts nearly forever, costs less and is a lot more important in the creative process than "sexy" cameras. 


mosswings said...

Kirk, you've learned lighting well enough so that you can head out on your photo recons and take some good photographs - aided by that bright, crisp Texas sun. Which I suppose is your point.

Sure, we should talk about lighting...but then we'd be talking about the right season and the right event and the right time for the right light for the image we want to take - and pretty soon we'd realize just how time-consuming a craft good photography is, and 9 out of 10 of us would throw up our hands and walk away...and the photo industry would collapse.

A portraitist and theatre shooter like yourself depends on proper lighting, so buys proper lighting equipment to take the picture you want when you want to take it - or when your schedule demands.

A landscape or street photographer doesn't have control of the light, so must be more strategic about when s/he photographs. Sure you can use flash in certain situations, but the best landscape/street photographers are masters of meteorology and climate, and of the fine art of just hanging around and watching how the light changes, when things are busy and quiet.

Too many camera purchasers don't have that sort of time. They're basically life journalists taking shots when they're at some place for the brief time they've allotted away from their paying job. So they spend on big iron in the hopes that it can compensate for all the planning and pre-observing they know they'll never have the time to spend.

And lo and behold, this has driven an entire industry. Until smartphones.

You're veering dangerously close to claiming that photography is actually an art form, with all that entails for the balance between vision, training, and equipment. If it were, were would so many of us be?

Dave Jenkins said...

All so true.

If you and I could light and shoot transparency film with a dynamic range of four or five stops, as we did for years, 10 or 12 stops of DR is an embarrassment of riches.

Mike Rosiak said...

I don't do photography for a living ... and that's a very good thing. However, in the back of my mind is to use the opportunity of the next large family gathering (my wife's family = large) to offer portraits for anyone who would sit for me while I experiment with stuff.

Meanwhile ... thinking about the camera spec chase of recent years ... I didn't buy my first digital camera until 2001, when consumer cameras with a megapixel count of 3.1 mpx and a retail price under $500 came to market. Until then, when I took my rolls to my favorite camera store, in addition to developing and 4x6 prints, I asked for scans stored on a CD. And until then I was perfectly happy with my old Canon AE-1, and an okay enough zoom lens. Kodak & Fuji ruled the image space.

I believe that the spec chase started with the idea that you wanted and needed a camera with a sensor that could deliver characteristics equal to film. That took a while. Meanwhile, electronics got even smaller, people started carrying small computers with phones and cameras embedded, and expectations shifted, while the original goal got forgotten except by the pros. Then we got to the point where anyone could afford a photo editor, and a snapshot printer. Then social media took off, and photo sites like ... well, this list could go on.

I would relegate the sites and blogs and such that compare cameras and specs to the nth detail to realm of consumer advertisers. The camera content is there to attract potential customers for embedded ads. I no longer follow any of them. None. It's comparable to my paring down the news sites that I visit to those that handle reporting only. Who needs the agitation?

Doug said...

Kirk: In the end, photography is about writing with light as you have pointed out over the years. It's more than that, of course, but wasn't it Galen Rowell who said something like, "I find great light and then find something I can photograph in it." For those of us who do not make our living at it, and do not yet understand how to manipulate light, the moments of great light come only from time to time and sometimes rather unexpectedly. But, when they come, it's glorious. If I close my eyes, I can remember those moments from the last 40 years, and I am blessed to have taken some wonderful photographs during those moments. And I'm grateful. And, you know, some were taken with a Nikon F, a Nikon F3, a Canon EOS?, a Minolta 7Hi, a Panasonic FZ30, a Nikon D80, a Nikon D7000, an Olympus Stylus 1s,and now a Fuji X-T1. The constant has not been the equipment. Rather, the constants have been the light, the subject, the opportunity and, I guess, me.

Frank Gorga said...

Amen brother... amen!

Last evening I saw an exhibit of (and heard a lecture about) O. Winston Link's photographs of the Norfolk & Western, the last main line railroad in the US to run steam engines.

These photographs, made in the late 1950's, were mostly made at night so that Link could control the lighting. Many exposures used multiple light sources (reflectors holding up to 18 flash bulbs) and trigger using hundreds of feet to electrical cable. A truly heroic effort.

More information about Link can be found on Wikipedia, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O._Winston_Link

The exhibit I saw runs for the month of August at the Vermont Center for Photography (VCP) in Brattleboro, Vermont. If you are in southern Vermont, it is well worth a stop. (Full disclosure... I am the president of the VCP.)

--- Frank

mosswings said...

Addendum to my previous attempt at facetious humor:

It is about the light and story, and our skill and good fortune to be present with a camera and an idea when it occurs, as Doug has noted you have said...many times.

I, too, can count the number of times that has occurred for me on both hands in too many decades.

I could have increased that count several fold by taking more classes and spending more time on the craft, but all that I've been able to accomplish is to slow down and better observe before I shoot. Lately, I've found more pleasure in simply observing; no camera, no impetus to produce something, nothing between me and the world.

In some future life, I think all this observing will be worth it.

Roger Jones said...

Your right, lightings is an on going study. As for cameras and lenses I believe we've reach our peak. It's time to return to shooting/creating images. The D700 is a good example of how we've reach our peak.
I did a shoot yesterday using my D700 and 85 F2 manual lens. This lens is so beat up it surprises me every time I use it. The images came out great and the client was very happy. No worries, I'm still retired, this was for a non profit organization my son volunteers at.

There is more to photography than cameras, lenses, and flashes. It's fun to talk about, but it gets old after a while.

Off for a bike ride..Tubes from Satan.

Have fun

amolitor said...

On those occasions when I do monkey around with a light or two. I am always enthralled at how very small changes are so clearly visible.

Alas, like most photographers, I am generally too lazy to do it the easy way and have to work twice as hard to get half the results.

Paul said...

Thanks for reminding me to pull out that book and buy a constant light source. I’ll have to practice on bottles of wine and spirits as my resident subjects hate being photographed 😊

Rufus said...

One of the reasons I enjoy my daily visits to VSL is because Kirk is a very different photographer than me.

I rarely control the light. For me, the whole thrill of photography is seeking the light and making use of the challenges it presents, compared to Kirk who seeks to control the light to get the results he needs.

Of course, his work is that of a professional engaged to provide portraits or documentary that has a specific professional purpose. So controlling the light makes sense.

I do not think I would shoot pictures much if I controlled the light. The studio holds little appeal to me. Instead, the constant search for the right light leads to being up and awake at absurd hours of the day, sometimes in discomfort, often bored, frequently frustrated. And then.. and then.. the light provides you with the gift you seek and you get the shot. ( or a shot at least ) that made it all worthwhile.

That is photography for me. YMMV. :)

Craig Yuill said...

Good lighting is important for many different types of photographs. I usually take photographs of birds, wildlife, scenery, and buildings. I am unable to control the lighting in those circumstances. But I can do one of two things - take photographs at a time and location that get the best results for the subject(s), or make best use of the light that I have to work with. Birds deep in a tree can be nicely photographed if their head happens to be placed (usually momentarily) where a spot of sunlight managed to get past all of the branches and leaves. Buildings and landscapes are usually at their best at a certain time of the day. I was reminded of this when I was recently walking early one morning in a touristy area I used to frequent in my youth. The light on one prominent building was spectacular, and I got the best photos of it that I had ever taken. In the past I had photographed it in the afternoon - but I realized that, all along, I really should have dragged my lazy backside out of bed and photographed it early in the morning.

Please keep reminding us that lighting, not the latest gear, is ultimately the most important part of our photography.

Mike Mundy said...

I don't change my Depends (TM) THAT often.

Wally said...

...And while your at it get a flash meter used of course to check ratios. Make notes in a notebook, draw pictures in a note book, and plan out shoots ahead of time in a notebook.

Michael Matthews said...

You realize, of course, that you have a perfectly serendipitous e-book right at hand. One which can be sketched out in rough while waiting for clients to show up for their portraits in the air conditioned comfort of lawyers’ offices and medical practices all over the city. One which can be done without conflict with your print publisher unless there’s a no-compete agreement in place. The Amherst LED lighting book dates to 2012. A lot of technology has changed. Physics and aesthetics (for the most part) have not. Simple diagrams can demonstrate the basics. Behind the scenes shots on real locations can expand on the fine points. Clients probably would cooperate in the use of location images which are generic. A rare individual might even volunteer to take part. If not, recruit an occasional model from your swim club. Links to simplified videos demonstrating technique can be included as well as linking to your Craftsy portrait course. You could provide links to selected product review videos by Caleb Pike, Curtis Judd and others — and benefit from links to your e-book in their Youtube descriptive material. There’s a nearby graphic designer who might be persuaded to handle page layout and typography. And a proficient young DP/editor who might be conned into assisting with the BTS video aspect.

Keep the price low. I’ll gladly preorder the first one.

neopavlik said...

Don G / Wizwow is the man !

I recently spent ~$1k to get a parabolic umbrella with a grid and am waiting for it to arrive so I can start to use it.

Have $ waiting to see which powerful LED I want to get and also waiting for Nikon's mirrorless, those questions should be answered by the end of this month to wait for those releases or buy what is available now.